August 16 1971 – August 5 2017
Lee Blakeley, who has died suddenly aged 45, was a fearlessly individual director who moved between opera and musical theatre in a way that was not afraid to be popular, and who, both in his personal and professional life, could find the fun in everything. This was the case whether overseeing a production of Die Fledermaus for Scottish Opera set in the world of footballers’ wives, or simply indulging in impromptu bouts of ridiculous quick stepping round the studio during breaks in rehearsal with some of his cast.
Blakeley’s international career saw him work with such luminaries as Gigi star Leslie Caron and Greta Scacchi in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in a production which introduced Sondheim’s work to French audiences for the first time. This set the template for a series of visually striking interpretations of major works, in which he mixed and matched casts of opera singers, actors and musical theatre stars to maverick effect.
Even with such a towering career abroad, Blakeley kept close ties with Scotland, where he initially trained as an actor at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. He kept in close contact with RCS, with whom he was regarded as part of the institution’s extended family. This year alone he directed students in Into the Woods and another take on Die Fledermaus, this time magnificently inspired by Brexit.
Blakeley was born in Yorkshire, to his parents Richard and Carol, who he remained close to for the rest of his life. He went to Mirfield High School, West Yorkshire, before successfully applying for RSAMD. While there, between 1992 and 1994 he acted in productions of Twelfth Night, Plenty by David Hare, Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Animal by Tom McGrath, Old Mother Hubbard by Robin Wilson and the title role in Purcell’s King Arthur.
Even during this time, however, it quickly became apparent that Blakeley’s real talents lay in overseeing productions instead of appearing in them, and he graduated with the prize for directing. His career in this sphere began with him working closely with another RSAMD/RCS alumni, David McVicar. Assisting such a radical wunderkind as McVicar on his Royal Opera productions of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote and Gounod’s Faust set Blakeley off on his own path with an equally individual approach
His Theatre du Chatelet production of A Little Night music was Blakeley’s breakthrough calling card in his own right. This led to three further French premieres of Sondheim works. Blakeley’s production of Sweeney Todd was also staged at Houston Grand opera with Nathan Gunn and Susan Bullock in the cast, and then to San Francisco Opera, with Stephanie Blyth as Mrs Lovett.
Blakeley’s take on Sunday in the Park with George won the Syndicate de Critique Prix for design and was broadcast on TV throughout Europe. This was followed by three more productions at the Chatelet: Into the Woods, The King and I, which was also seen in Chicago, and Kiss Me Kate, a co-production with the Grand Theatre, Luxembourg.
While making his mark with musical theatre in France, Blakeley’s opera career in America flourished. He directed Madam Butterfly with Santa Fe Opera, a production later remounted at Los Angeles Opera. Also at Santa Fe, he directed productions of The Pearlfishers, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and Rigoletto. Elsewhere, Blakeley directed Falstaff in Los Angeles, Orpheus and Euridice in Minnesota and The Tales of Hoffmann for Canadian Opera Company. With Opera Theatre St Louis, Blakeley directed and co-translated the American premiere of Handel’s Richard the Lionheart, and directed a new production of Macbeth, which won a St Louis Theatre Circle award for outstanding production.
In the UK, Blakeley’s production of Pat Kirkwood is Angry opened at the Royal Exchange, Manchester before transferring to the west end, and on to the Brits off Broadway festival in New York. As artistic director of Opera Theatre Europe, he premiered Therese Raquin at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, and developed new contemporary operas and site specific pieces for the ENO Studio and the Covent Garden Festival.
Blakeley received a Winston Churchill Fellowship to study artistic development and the culture of philanthropy in New York, and worked with the British Council in Macedonia to create a new production of The Turn of the Screw as part of Macedonian Opera’s young artists programme.
His shows were always visually and theatrically striking, nuanced, and both moving and funny. He had particular ear for dialogue and an eye for humour on stage that reflected his reputation as hilarious and charismatic company in private.
Throughout his travels, Blakeley retained a strong connection with Glasgow, with both Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. As well as his Footballers’ Wives take on Die Fledermaus he directed Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera, which was nominated for the TMA Achievement in Opera award. With RSAMD/RCS he directed The Love For Three Oranges, and, most recently, Into The Woods and his Brexit-inspired Die Fledermaus.
Blakeley admired performers who were fearless on stage, and had little interest in singers who brought nothing else to the party other than a voice. He was a fiercely loyal friend and colleague, who could be outspoken at times, but always with the one aim of making the best work he possibly could.
Above all, laughter was never far from anything Blakeley did. Friends and colleagues talk of how he was the person they laughed most with in the rehearsal room, and how he was a comic genius in life as much as work.
He is survived by his husband, Jonathan, his parents Richard and Carol, and his sister Lisa.
(From Neil Cooper at The Herald Scotland)
Lee Blakeley studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and at Glasgow University. He was awarded a 2007 Churchill Travelling Fellowship.
Lee’s highly acclaimed 2010 production of A Little Night Music for Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, was followed by Sweeney Todd (2011, also USA), Sunday in the Park with George (2013), Into the Woods, The King and I (2014) and Kiss Me Kate (2016, also Luxembourg), all at the Châtelet.
In North America Lee Blakeley has directed Riccardo Primo and Macbeth for St Louis Opera; Rigoletto, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, The Pearl Fisher and Madama Butterfly at Santa Fe Opera; Falstaff and Madama Butterfly for Los Angeles Opera; Orpheus and Euridice for Minnesota Opera and The Tales of Hoffmann for Canadian Opera.
Other productions include Il Turco in Italia for Angers Nantes Opera; Cosi fan Tutte at London’s Royal College of Music; Into the Woods for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; A Love for Three Oranges, A Night at the Chinese Opera (nominated for the 2008 TMA “Achievement in Opera” Award) and Die Fledermaus for Scottish Opera.
He directed a new musical, Pat Kirkwood Is Angry, at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was also performed off Broadway and in London